United States District Court, D. Nevada
R. HICKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.
Jawad “Joe” Quassani moved to vacate, set aside,
or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C. § 2255,
asserting three grounds for relief. ECF No. 149. The court
denied ground two and ground three of the motion on September
28, 2016. ECF No. 155. After holding an evidentiary hearing
in regards to ground one and after considering the
parties' post-evidentiary-hearing memorandums, the court
now denies ground one. Accordingly, Quassani's motion is
denied in its entirety. The court also denies Quassani a
certificate of appealability.
and his co-conspirators implemented a mortgage-fraud scheme
designed to defraud lenders into issuing inflated mortgages
and to generate kickbacks for Quassani and his
co-conspirators. See EFC No. 155. During the time
in which the scheme was ongoing, Quassani used his position
as a loan officer for a Las Vegas mortgage brokerage to
assist a straw buyer in obtaining a mortgage. Id. To
ensure that the straw buyer was approved for a mortgage large
enough to purchase a property at an inflated asking price,
Quassani listed the straw buyer's income on the mortgage
application as more than three times his actual income.
Id. Quassani also falsely indicated on the
application that the straw buyer was purchasing the property
for use as a primary residence. Id. Based on the
false information, the straw buyer was approved for a loan,
which was used to purchase the property and to fund the
kickbacks received by Quassani and his co-conspirators.
three-day trial, a jury convicted Quassani of one count of
conspiracy to commit wire fraud and mail fraud under 18
U.S.C. § 1349, two counts of wire fraud under 18 U.S.C.
§ 1343, and two counts of mail fraud under 18 U.S.C.
§ 1341. ECF No. 89. The court sentenced Quassani to a
thirty-seven-month term of imprisonment. ECF No. 127. On
appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed Quassani's conviction
and the court's sentence. ECF Nos. 142, 146; United
States v. Quassani, 593 Fed. App'x 627 (9th Cir.
now brings a collateral attack of his conviction, moving to
vacate, set aside, or correct his sentence under 28 U.S.C.
§ 2255. ECF No. 149. Quassani argues three grounds for
relief: (1) ineffective assistance of counsel based on an
alleged conflict of interest between Quassani and his
attorneys as well as his attorneys' alleged failure to
investigate potential key witnesses; (2) ineffective
assistance of counsel based on his attorneys' failure to
object to allegedly improper vouching and improper jury
instructions; and (3) that his conviction was obtained by an
unconstitutionally impaneled jury. Id. The court
denied ground two and ground three on September 28, 2016,
because the Ninth Circuit disposed of the same arguments in
Quassani's earlier appeal. ECF No. 155. But the court did
not deny ground one; the court instead ordered an evidentiary
hearing to resolve the ambiguities concerning ground one.
Id. Specifically, the court noted the vague nature
of Quassani's claim of a conflict of interest with his
attorneys and of Quassani's claim of his attorneys'
failure to investigate potential key witnesses. Id.
The court also ordered Quassani be appointed counsel for the
evidentiary hearing occurred on June 14, 2017. Transcript of
Evidentiary Hearing (“EH Transcript”), United
States v. Quassani, No. 2:11-cr-00409 (D. Nev. June 14,
2017), ECF No. 183. Five witnesses provided testimony: (1)
attorney Peter Christiansen, (2) attorney Richard Tanasi, (3)
Jawad Quassani, (4) FBI agent Mark Staten, and (5) private
investigator Arthur Von Ahn. See Id. Christiansen
represented Quassani prior to trial as court-appointed
counsel. ECF No. 29. Shortly before trial, Christiansen moved
to withdraw as counsel, but his motion was denied. ECF Nos.
52, 57. Shortly thereafter, Quassani consented to be
represented by Tanasi. ECF No. 70. Staten worked as the FBI
agent assigned to Quassani's underlying case. EH
Transcript at 98:24-25. Von Ahn worked on Quassani's case
as a private investigator for Christiansen and Tanasi.
Id. at 104:2-21.
witnesses provided testimony on several topics pertinent to
Quassani's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel:
(1) the trial theme and strategy of Quassani's defense:
(2) the circumstances surrounding the alleged conflict of
interest between Quassani and his attorneys; (3) the
attorneys' alleged failure to investigate potential key
witnesses; (4) Tanasi's opening statement at trial; (5)
the decision that Quassani not testify at trial and the
failure to conduct a mock examination; (6) the testimony and
cross-examination of trial-witness Janet Lewis; and (7) the
meetings shared between Quassani and his attorneys. See
Theme and Strategy
testified that he developed a trial theme for Quassani's
defense: Quassani did not knowingly lie at any time on any of
the loans. EH Transcript 38:15-16. Tanasi reiterated this
theme throughout the evidentiary hearing. Id. at
36:19-22 (stating “our defense was going to be
[…] focusing on kind of that front end of the deals in
the case and whether or not Mr. Quassani was truthful on the
front end of the deals.”); id. at 37:3-4
(stating “the defense of […] Mr. Quassani
wasn't lying at any point in this whole
transaction[.]”); id. at 41:12-15 (stating
“the strategy of the defense was […] Mr.
Quassani didn't lie at any time.”); id. at
47:6-7 (stating “the bottom line on the defense was
[Quassani] didn't know [about the inaccuracies on the
reports, applications, or loan documents]”).
present the theme at trial, Tanasi testified that the defense
focused on “the front end” of the mortgage-fraud
scheme implemented by Quassani and his co-conspirators.
Id. at 33:2-4. The “front-end” refers to
Quassani's co-conspirators and to the documents relating
to the fraudulent mortgage applications. Id. at
Tanasi, and Quassani provided testimony regarding the alleged
conflict of interest. See EH Transcript.
Approximately one month before trial, Christensen moved to
withdraw as Quassani's counsel, averring “[t]hat a
conflict exist[ed] between [him] and Mr. Quassani,
interfering with [Christiansen's] ability to provide
competent representation.” ECF No. 52.
further explained the circumstances motivating his motion to
withdraw at the evidentiary hearing. See EH
Transcript at 12:1-13:25, 21:24-23:9. Christiansen
stated that he “had concerns about the veracity of what
[Quassani] said to the federal [authorities]” during a
pre-trial proffer meeting for a parallel investigation into a
similar matter. Id. at 12:11-13, 13:22-25.
Christiansen later elaborated that his concerns were
two-fold. Id. at 22:1-24: First, Christiansen
believed that Quassani “had not been truthful” to
the government agents, which compromised Christiansen's
ability to place Quassani on the stand for questioning in
front of the government agents. Id. at 22:6-10.
Second, Christiansen learned from the proffer that Quassani
showed “[sealed] discovery to other witnesses”
and that Quassani allegedly had monies acquired from the
scheme in the parallel investigation, making court-appointed
counsel inappropriate for lack of indigency. Id. at
22:11-24. But Christiansen clarified that, to his
recollection, he did not have a legal conflict of interest
with Quassani. Id. at 23:6-9.
Christiansen's motion to withdraw being denied, Quassani
agreed to be represented by Tanasi. ECF No. 70. In order to
prevent “souring [Quassani's] relationship with
anybody else, ” Christiansen testified that he chose to
not disclose his opinion regarding Quassani's veracity to
Tanasi. EH Transcript at 24:1-4. Rather, Christiansen kept
his concerns “privileged to [him].” Id.
at 24:4. Tanasi confirmed that he did not share any
discussions with Christiansen regarding the circumstances
leading to the motion to withdraw. Id. at 29:3-6.
allegations regarding a possible conflict consist of general
characterizations. For example, he testified: “It's
weird when I talked to [Christiansen]. It was not-it
wasn't comfortable.” Id. at 57:17-18.
Additionally: “I did not understand
[Christiansen's] conflict.” Id. at 56:5-6.
And further: “But as far as my understanding of
conflict, I tried contacting Mr. Christiansen a few-few-lots
of times, and every time […] [I] was referred to
Archie, the investigator.” Id. at 56:7-10.
Finally, Quassani admitted that “hundreds of thousands
of dollars” were deposited into his bank account in
2011 through 2012. Id. at 95:6-13. But Quassani
still contended that he “did not have money to retain
an attorney at that time.” Id. at 97:3-4.
of Potential Witnesses
Quassani, Staten, and Von Ahn each provided testimony in
regards to Quassani's allegation that the attorneys
failed to investigate potential key witnesses. See
testified that he spoke with a potential witness named
Anthony Brandel. EH Transcript at 35:19-20. He explained that
Brandel did not testify for two reasons. Id. at
35:24-25. First, Brandel lacked “any real specific
knowledge” of the issues in the case. Id. at
36:1-2. Therefore, Brandel's potential testimony was
limited to character testimony about Quassani. Id.
at 36:2-8. Tanasi explained that the defense chose not to
offer character evidence on behalf of Quassani because
“there were some concerns that could have come to light
that could have rebutted the good-guy defense.”
Id. at 35:2-4. Second, Brandel did not testify
because of impeachment concerns. Id. at 36: 9-10.
also testified that Quassani made “witness-related
requests.” Id. at 37:17. However, the
potential witnesses identified by Quassani failed to provide
any information about the issues of Quassani's case.
Id. at 38:1-5. Therefore, like Brandel's
potential testimony, the potential witnesses' testimony
was limited to character evidence. Id. at 38:6-8.
Given the potential witnesses' lack of personal knowledge
of the facts at issue, Tanasi testified that he could not
recall any witness who could have undermined the
government's trial evidence. Id. at 49:18-50:5.
Further, Tanasi clarified that one potential witness-Ann
Cui-would damage Quassani's defense. Id. at
50:15-20. He based his opinion on statements Cui included in
her FBI 302 report for the investigation into the
mortgage-fraud scheme. Id.at 50:15-25.
testified that he also requested his attorneys contact John
Panich. Id. at 76:19- 21. However, when questioned
by Staten during the FBI investigation into the
mortgage-fraud scheme, Quassani failed to mention any other
potential witnesses. Id. at 100:1-17, 102:14-17.
Von Ahn testified that he attempted to find witnesses who
could testify in Quassani's defense. Id.
104:22-25. He spoke to Cui, Brandel, Peyman Kermanshahi, and
Jaime Pena. Id. at 105:22-106:1. Von Ahn testified
that Cui's testimony “would be very damaging”
to Quassani's defense, which he opined based off her FBI
302 report. Id. at 107:9-21. Von Ahn also testified
that the other potential witnesses could not provide personal
knowledge or facts helpful to Quassani's defense.
Id. at 108:2-20. When asked if he came across any
evidence suggesting that other witnesses could corroborate
Quassani's innocence, Von Ahn testified that he did not.
Id. at 108:21-109:1.
also attempted to physically locate Panich but was
unsuccessful. Id. at 106:3- 13. Von Ahn
“believe[s] […] that [he had] a telephone
conversation with Mr. Panich, ” because Tanasi listed
Panich as a character witness in his notes. Id. at
106: 7-13. Tanasi would have received the information
regarding Panich's potential testimony only from Von Ahn.
Id. at 106:15-16.
Statement at Trial
evidentiary hearing, Tanasi was asked to recall the following
line from his opening statement at trial: “Because
those witnesses are the ones, the only witnesses, as the
evidence will show, that can come into this courtroom and
tell you that Mr. Quassani knowingly participated in a
conspiracy.” EH Transcript at 39:2-20. The statement
refers to Quassani's co-conspirators and the straw buyer.
Id. While Tanasi remembered the isolated statement,
the following excerpt from Tanasi's opening statement is
relevant for context:
And in this case, there will be a lot of documents, and there
will be a lot of exhibits that you will have to sort through,
and you will hear from witnesses. But I'll submit to you
that the witnesses you hear from, the most important
witnesses you hear from are Mr. Butler, Miss Mathur, and Mr.
Qureshi. Because those witnesses are the ones-the only
witnesses, as the evidence will show-that can ...